JIM Corr's recent intervention on the Lisbon agenda -- you know, where he said it was all a big conspiracy and added that 9/11 was a NeoCon plot backed by George Bush -- has really got me going. He may be paranoid. But to be fair to the man, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.
If I say the words "conspiracy theorist" to you, a picture of a geek with bad personal hygiene, no girlfriend and a personality like the Lisbon Treaty may pop up in your mind. But, strange people that they are, sometimes, just sometimes, these geeks can get it right.
As far as the recent Live Register figures go, I am developing my own theory involving the Da Vinci Code, alien spacecraft and secret societies. In the 12 months up until last year's election, the Live Register slithered up and down between 155,000 and 160,000 persons like a snake in a drainpipe. One month after the election, it broke through the 160,000 barrier for the first time since October 2004.
Here's another odd -- and apparently (but not quite) unrelated -- fact. In spite of having voted against the Lisbon Treaty 53 per cent of the electorate find their position on Europe supported by only the smallest political party in the state. A passionate No voter could be forgiven for thinking that there is a ghastly conspiracy against Eurosceptics.
As I hope you'll see, these two phenomena, although very different, have a common explanation.
Last Tuesday, the Live Register broke through the 200,000 barrier for the first time since the 1990s. At 207,000, the numbers claiming the dole are up 47,000 on a year before. That's a rise of almost one third in a 12-month period, preceded by a 12-month period in which -- in seasonally adjusted terms -- the Live Register was virtually static. And those two 12-month periods were separated by an election.
Now, as many foretold two years ago, the Live Register is rising. With almost one in five males employed in construction, Newton's Law was bound to kick in. But it was the way that rise came that was so strange. Construction sector employment startled stalling around a year ago, exactly after the election. And house prices started falling just over a year ago, very close to the election. Clearly, something very strange is happening in an economy that seems to flick like a light switch at election time.
Then again, I've been working very hard these days and probably need a holiday badly. I also read too many Government statistics for my own good.
Is there a rational explanation for any of this? As a matter of fact, there are several. The first of them is something with which most of you will be familiar: the Special Savings Incentive Account (SSIA). This exceptionally clever scheme has had some exceptionally unfortunate consequences for our economic cycle. By rolling up around €17bn-worth of savings in the six years leading up to last year, and by then drenching the economy in money by releasing them between May 2006 and May 2007, SSIAs lifted an already thriving economy on to a level of activity that was going to be impossible to follow.
On top of this, instead of cutting public sector employment by 5,000, as Charlie McCreevy promised to do in 2002, the Government upped public sector employment by 55,000 in the ensuing five years. Hence the 25 per cent rise in public spending in the two years leading up to last year's election.
By rights, however, the economy should have started slowing down in 2005. As the CSO's first estimates of GDP growth produced for the first quarter of that year showed, growth was starting to slow of its own accord from the 5 per cent recorded in 2004 to rates that were in the region of between 2 and 3 per cent.
At Easter 1994, the ESRI predicted that the Celtic Tiger would last about 10 years. So a reasonable interpretation is that by 2005, an extraordinary decade of growth was about to be replaced by a more pedestrian, but by international standards respectable, growth performance.
So did Government Ministers conspire with alien life forms and social partnership apparatchiks (it's hard to tell the difference between the latter two categories) to give the economy a shot in the arm by ratcheting up public sector employment and thinking up SSIAs? The truth is out there, and its somewhere between a conspiracy theory and a total cock-up.
To get the real explanation, you have to now bring in the seemingly unrelated question of why -- despite never falling below one third of the electorate -- those who vote No to referenda on Europe never get a major Dail party or newspaper to represent them.
To answer this conundrum, and to unravel the puzzle of our Live Register numbers, we have to look to the UK. In the UK, both pro-EU and EU-sceptic viewpoints are well represented -- not only in Westminster, but in the UK print media as well. So why not here?
If I am an elected politician in Ireland, our highly sensitive electoral system means that I am a slave to middle-ground opinion, especially floating voters. As most middle-ground floating voters are also Yes voters, that leaves me with a simple choice: side with the Yes vote and anchor my voting base in the centre, or side with the Nos. The trouble with the latter strategy is that No voters come from either side of the ideological spectrum.
(A political party set up to reflect the views of both Declan Ganley and Richard Boyd Barrett would have the political shelf life of a caesium atom: about 0.000000012 milliseconds.)
Even if the No vote becomes almost as large as the Yes vote, this is a losing strategy -- because on issues other than Lisbon (taxation, the US arms industry) my No voters are diametrically opposed to each other and I can't unite them in support for me.
Hence, my only option is to side with the Yes voters and appeal to either the left or right by reaching out from the centre to the edge (but not too far).
In the UK, by contrast, the first-past-the-post system allows MPs and governments with more pronounced views to get elected with smaller shares of the vote, and the centrist voters are far less important. They can also take tough stands and get re-elected. In Ireland, a Taoiseach has to take the blandest position on everything. Bertie Ahern understood this, which is why his positions on everything from economics to boybands were a study in blandness.
Which answers the puzzle of our unemployment figures. So sensitive is our electoral system -- not only PR, but single transferable votes in multi-seat constituents to boot -- that asking any Irish politician not to massage our economy in the run-up to an election is asking them to lose their jobs. So until we reform our electoral system, regardless of who is in government we will destined for boom economics before every election and bust economics immediately after.
Now if you'll excuse me, the men in white coats are here.
Marc Coleman is Economics Editor, Newstalk 106 to 108